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Aborigine Philip Obah of North Queensland, Australia , talks
about his culture and Baha'i faith during a recent visit to

Photo by Craig Robinson

Aborigine man bridges gap between cultures, religions

Heather Armstrong
Staff Writer

GALLUP - There may be a lot of ocean between us and the aborigines of Australia. But one man is trying to educate people about different cultures to show that they are really not so different on a spiritual level.

Philip Obah, an aborigine from the Wadja Tribe of North Queensland, Australia, visited Gallup and the reservation at the invitation of the Baha'i community of Gallup in an effort to educate about cultural differences that are often misunderstood.

Obah said he currently acts as an ambassador in building relationships between the aborigines and the wider community in hopes of breaking down stereotypes and prejudice.

"When you look at the dictionary term of prejudice, it's about prejudging people," Obah said. "What we're doing are programs to make people become more aware of different cultures, to relate to each other on a spiritual and social level."

Obah earned a bachelor's degree in community welfare from the James Cook University in Australia. This degree hits home for Obah who said that while aborigines have made strides in education and health care, they have a long way to go since they were not considered Australian citizens and were not even counted in the census until 1967.

Aboriginal family

Obah was nominated to be a tribe elder, to look after the spiritual well-being of the tribe and to guide the community and family members. How many family members is he talking about?

"I've never counted them," Obah laughed. But, he did draw a map designating that his extended family stretches all the way up the eastern side of Australia, from tip to tip.

"We don't have terms like cousins," Obah said. "We are all brothers and sisters."

Orphans are nonexistent since aunts and uncles carry on the same roles as mothers and fathers. Obah inherited the role of grandmother when his sister passed away. Grandmother? Obah affirms that he takes her place, making him a grandmother.

Marriages are dictated by kinship, also know as skin names. This prevents marrying too close to one's bloodline. He likened this to Native American clans.

Obah's tribe is matriarchal, meaning the mother is recognized as the head of the family or tribe.

Aboriginal religion

Everything has a spirit to the aborigines who believe the air, rocks, trees, language, law and culture and art all come from the Creator.

The aborigines believe that a rainbow serpent was God's messenger, teaching moral and spiritual laws. Obah said these laws also helped the aborigines adapt to harsh Australian environments. However, Christian missionaries in Australia saw it differently.

"In the Bible the serpent was evil because it tempted Adam and Eve," Obah said. "They thought the aborigines were worshipping the devil."

"God appeared to Moses as a burning bush," Obah said. "If God could appear to Moses as a burning bush, surely he could appear to us as a rainbow serpent."

Obah also addressed the aboriginal oral tradition, which is often seen as being inferior to a written tradition. He argues that just because it's not written in the Bible doesn't mean it never existed.

Zealous missionaries put the aborigines in boarding schools and taught them Christianity. The faith they learned depended on which school they attended. Obah went to a Catholic school, so he became Catholic. Obah paralleled this to many of the area's Native Americans who were also sent to boarding schools.

The missionaries brought their own laws that aborigines were forced to adhere to, causing them to break their own traditional laws. Just speaking their own native tongue meant imprisonment for the aborigines.

"It squashed out a lot of our teachings," Obah said. "Today I can't speak my own language. We were not allowed to practice it."

The languages were kept alive only by those aborigines who hid out or were too far in the bush to be captured. Obah noted that aborigines who were caught from the 600 or so tribes were mixed together, which muddled things further and caused friction between enemy tribes that got mixed up.

Obah pointed out the irony that conservationists are now preaching what the aborigines always practiced. Nature has always been a priority for the aborigines.

"We're connected to nature and nature's connected to us," Obah said. "Nature is not outside in a national park. You are a part of it, not separate."

Baha'i faith

The Baha'is believe, among other things, in one God, in the oneness of humankind, in the harmony of science and religion and the equality of men and women.

"I wasn't looking for religion," Obah said. "I was on a journey of looking at my own traditional culture."

Obah, a self-described retired Catholic, said it was the Baha'i faith that helped him understand the colonization of his people.
He realized it was inevitable, according to what Bahullah, the founder of the Baha'i faith, had written.

"The way it happened I don't agree with," Obah said of the colonization. " But it had to happen to bring about the unity of mankind."

"Before Baha'i we (the aborigines) hated everyone white," Obah said. "We marched the streets and told them to get on the boat and go back home."

Obah said he believed that although different religions call God by different names, they are in fact all referring to the same creator. Obah embraced the Baha'i faith because it does not believe one group or one culture is superior to another.

Obah's role

Obah does not see himself as a prophet or a preacher.

"I'm no one special," Obah said, adding that he's just a man who travels and talks.

Obah said his goal through various programs is to increase awareness of the different cultures to help people relate to each other on a spiritual and social level.

In Obah's view, one culture doesn't take precedence over another.

"It doesn't matter who we are, we all have souls," Obah said. He said the difference lies in the level of awareness one has of his or her soul.

He is one of the nine of the Baha'i National Assembly of Australia. There are three different levels: a nine-member local assembly, a nine-member national assembly for each country and a nine-member Universal House of Justice.

Obah first went to England, where he gave talks at Oxford. He then moved on to Israel for a week, Canada for two weeks and the U.S. for a week before jetting off to Somoa. He then heads home to rejoin his wife and six children.

How does he sum it up?

"It's been a good journey, socially and spiritually," Obah said.

©Copyright 2001, Gallup Independent (NM)

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